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Road link between Lanka and India, a bridge too far

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Lanka can and must have more trade bridges, financial bridges, investment bridges, diplomatic bridges and cultural bridges with our Big Brother India. In fact, the more intangible but solid bridges we build with our closest neighbour, the better it will be economically and diplomatically for the two sovereign countries.  But isn’t the plan to build a direct road between the massive Indian subcontinent and this small tiny island of Lanka, going a bridge too far for comfort?

RAMA SETHU: Satellite image of the bridge Rama built to stage his ground invasion of Lanka to rescue Seetha from Ravana’s captivity

When Ranil Wickremesinghe returned home last Friday after his maiden trip to New Delhi as President, among the many Indian gifts found in his bag was the special Modi project proposal to build a bridge between Lanka and India that would transcend the watery divide and bring the two countries physically closer. It would end Lanka’s long isolation from peninsular India, and the appendix which had broken off would be reunited with India’s corpus.

It was not the first time the proposal had been made. The last time India’s proposal to build a bridge over the Palk Strait to physically link the island to the Indian mainland was raised was during Modi’s second visit to Lanka in 2017. Then Modi expressed the poetic aspirations of an Indian nationalist poet to convey India’s emotional longing for reunion with her breakaway child.

Modi had said: ‘I recall the lines of a famous song ‘Sindu Nadiyin Isai’ composed by the great nationalist poet Subramanian Bharati in the early 20th century: ‘Singalatheevukkinor paalam ameippom’ – we shall construct a bridge to Sri Lanka’.

Modi said, ‘I have come with the hope of building this bridge’.

But fearing India’s dream may become an island’s nightmare, Lanka had soft peddled the plan and it had remained on the draft boards. The seven-year itch has, it seems, begun to scratch again.

Of course, the primordial fears the islanders still bore seem justified. Thousands of years ago, India’s recurring dream had been built in rock and limestone by the monkey brigade led by Hanuman for Rama’s mighty army to invade Lanka on horse, foot and chariot to rescue Rama’s wife Seetha from Ravana’s captivity. The bridge paved the way for easy conquest.

Lanka’s surrounding sea had been her best defence but the monkey bridge had breached Ravana’s defensive moat. With the bridge a catwalk for troops, the island lay exposed to easy conquest. The virgin island was ravaged, hostage Seetha was saved, Ravana lay vanquished, his brother Vibhishana was installed as Rama’s puppet king, and, in the trail of the triumphant army’s withdrawal, Hanuman’s tail followed a scorch earth policy and set vital installations aflame.

The legendary tale has been chronicled 2800 years ago in Valmiki’s 24,000-verse epic poem the Ramayana – Rama’s journey – and held as India’s greatest classic, next to her Song of Songs, the Mahabharata. But though held as a legend, photographic evidence taken from above by NASA satellites, show fragments of a 30-mile-long limestone bridge — now known as Rama Sethu bridge — existing in the Palk Strait’s shallow depths.

And its significance may not be lost on Lanka yet.

No doubt, the optimists will pooh-pooh the worst fears, while top economists may hail it as a bridge of opportunity for the local economy to grow faster. Lankan importers and exporters will also praise the reduction in transport costs with a 1.5 billion Indian market just a hop, step and jump away. The tourism sector will rub their hands in glee and drool with delight at the prospect of a tourist invasion of Lanka.

But will India’s gateway to Lanka hold hidden dangers to the island’s wellbeing? With more than a billion people physically on our doorstep, will we risk being swallowed out of existence?

Already plans are afoot to make the Indian rupee a valid currency in Sri Lanka, with anticipated arrangements to facilitate seamless business transactions for Indian tourists whose arrivals are limited to the seating capacity of landing aircraft.  But with the bridge throwing open the doors to an endless influx of Indians and with the world’s fifth largest economy, India, operating as if this island was another of its Pranths, the rupee will come to lose its significance and eventually disappear.

With a road bridge, Lanka’s treasured island status will be lost forever and we islanders will no longer be but citizens of a country whose northern border will be the Indian bridge.

Take the logistics. Can Lanka’s infrastructure cope with an avalanche of Indians swamping the Lankan roads? Do our hotels have sufficient rooms to offer even if just 0.01 percent of India’s population amounting to 1,500,000,000 people used their road pass to drive or ride into Lanka for a sleepover to enjoy Diana Gamage’s dusk to dawn nightlife?

What about customs and immigration at the entry point? Can the officials check each and every car or bus, lorry or juggernaut for contraband, drugs or arms? Can health officials keep Indian disease at bay, can the environment be kept free of pollution?

If the entire Lankan population should descend on vast India, they will still be only a community whose presence among 1.5bn Indians will hardly be felt. But if just 0.1 percent of the population came here, they will be a colony.

And what of ground invasions that are still in fashion as Russia’s overnight thrust into Ukraine has shown? An aerial and sea invasion alone on an island oft runs into delays since tanks and heavy armour have to be airlifted or sea freighted and safely landed at the hot spot. But with a road bridge to Lanka, the Indian army can be right in the nation’s capital within a few hours complete with tanks and heavy equipment. It’s wiser to keep the relationship at a Palk Strait length than be engaged in a physical embrace. And remain as islanders to the last. What the gods have put asunder let no man join together.

Rambukwella continues with his tragedy of errorsLatest excuse: ‘No definition to rate drugs as of inferior quality’; Slaps media gag on health staff; Orders executives be fingerprintedUnder fire from all guns and with his back against the wall, Heath Minister Keheliya Rambukwella this week sought desperate escape from the accusation of being responsible for the untimely deaths of patients at state hospitals due to defective drugs.

In a last-ditch attempt to clear his name, he offered the last straw of his defence to Parliament’s Consultative Committee on Health on Monday, when he impudently declared: ‘There is no definition under which a medicine can be rated as of inferior quality.’

Pray say then, what need of scientific labs, quality testing procedures, what need, indeed of the NMRA — the National Medicines Regulatory Authority — if no exact definitions or scientifically formulated criteria are available to serve as the one universal gauge to accurately determine a medical drug’s beneficial potency to cure or its potential lethal potency to poison?

Is the Rambukwella belief that no quality standards can apply to medical drugs since no definition exists to rate any as inferior drugs, to be the governing criterion at government-run hospitals henceforth? Will Rambukwella’s arbitrary finding be confirmed, and ratified by this SLPP Government as the new norm to henceforth prevail at Government medical centres?

The Minister’s irresponsible comment caused another gun to open fire, this time from the medical profession itself. The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) reacted sharply to the minister’s preposterous comment which reduced its practitioners to the level of witch doctors. SLMA President Vinaya Ariyaratne condemned the comment and said: ‘It was an irresponsible statement and thus cannot be condoned.’

The Health Ministry’s dismal state has also brought out the big cannon from the Auditor General’s office, and it is presently being primed for firing. A senior official from the AG’s office told the Daily Mirror on Monday that, ‘recent reports from various parts of the country have raised concerns about the use of allegedly substandard drugs. Next week the AG will start an investigation into the purchase and distribution of medicines over the past two years.’

Last Friday, the Director General of Health Service, Dr. Asela Gunawardena, suspended two anaesthetic drugs. Thankfully he did not echo his Minister’s opinion that there was no definition to rate them as inferior. Dr. Gunawardena said that no substandard drugs will be imported.

The mounting demands for his resignation seem to have driven Rambukwella to the brink of despair. His desperate state of mind has made Truth the first casualty at his ministry.  With all the arrogance of a feudal master, the ministry secretary slapped a blanket of silence on the ministry’s employees with a warning that if they make statements to the media, they may be severely disciplined if it casts the ministry in bad light.

But there was worse to come. On Friday the Health Ministry announced that from August 1st

it will be mandatory for all staff grade officers and the executive staff to be fingerprinted and will henceforth be required to mark their attendance with the thumbprint. The tragic flaw in Rambukwella’s makeup is his arrogance. No doubt it would have helped him to beat the inferiority the unlearned suffer in authority when compelled to give orders to subordinates who are intellectually their superior.  But arrogance breeds arrogance and finally devourers its possessor. The flaw has now become a festered open oozing sore. Its perverse stink now pervades the whole of the Health Ministry.

He should now go home for the good of all. Especially since he’s not to be blamed for the original sin of this most unwise appointment, one where he’s totally out of his depth. The blame for that continues still to lie elsewhere.

The shambled state of the Health Ministry is the result of inheriting Gota’s stupendous folly. His folly was to think that a man’s initial career in the hospitality trade, made Rambukwella eminently qualified to be placed in charge of the nation’s hospitals.


 

Dinesh’s hidden galaxy lights shine forth from bushel of hayUnbeknown to his countrymen, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena seems to have been hiding his profound scientific light beneath a sun-dried bushel of hay. Until this week, one would have been excused for thinking that his interest in outer space extended to anything more than a keen astrological interest in the transit of stars and its impact on his political fortunes. But lo and behold, we seem to have India’s former President, the famous space scientist, Abdul Kalam in our midst. On Tuesday, the galactic cat was out of the bag, the stellar slip fell down and he stood bathed in stellar light.

DINESH: Rocket science

The universal spheres of knowledge the Prime Minister was orbiting only came to light by strange chance when a top Chinese delegation happened to pay the customary courtesy call on him at Temple Trees last Saturday. They had come to discuss the situation in general and in particular, China’s support to Lanka in agriculture, education, industry and other fields.

They would have been astounded to discover that the Prime Minister was no run-of-the-mill parochial politician with the usual insulated island mentality that could not see beyond the country’s shores but an extraordinary figure who had leapt out from the frog well to traverse the infinite ends of stellar space.

To Dinesh’s credit, he did not flaunt his rocket science to overawe this common agricultural aid mission with his superior grasp of esoteric knowledge. No, sir. It was no idle boast. It was one focused on achieving one specific goal: for Lanka to join hands with China and become one of the pioneering partners in the space race.

His keen eyes, which, perhaps, had oft gazed at the heavenly stars, had instantly detected an earthly star shine among the committee, its Chairman Dr. Yuan Jiajung, one of the topmost rocket scientists in all of China.

Soon after the usual exchange of meaningless pleasantries had been done away with, he plunged into an earnest discussion with his Chinese counterpart about how Lanka could cooperate with China in space exploration. And Dinesh showed his forte in the extra-terrestrial subject by delving deep into the logistical and engineering challenges that inhibit the advancement of rocket science technology.

Dinesh revealed his thorough grasp of gravity’s little-known laws which hadn’t proceeded much since Newton’s 1687 discovery. With his updated scientific brief which had identified Lanka’s deep South as being the area with the least gravity on earth — which may explain why southern politicians tend to walk on air with heads lost in cloud nine — Prime Minister Dinesh urged Chinese rocket scientist Dr. Yuan Jiajung to establish a joint Sino-Lanka space centre in the heart of southern Lanka — perhaps, akin to NASA’s space centre in southern Florida — and to use Lanka’s southern sea for the easier and safer landing of spacecraft. In short, to make Sri Lanka a worldwide space hub.

The Temple Tree’s communique does not reveal China’s rocket scientist Dr. Jiajung’s response to Prime Minister Dinesh’s bold endeavour to take Sri Lanka beyond the final frontier.

Nor does it mention if Dinesh impressed his honoured guest Dr.  Jiajung by smart name-dropping to seal the space deal. By vaunting that Lanka boasts on its southern soil, the eminent amazing whizz kid of rocket science whose past collaborations with space scientists ten years ago at Chinese space stations, helped them enormously to rectify their errors in space participatory schemes.

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